Sunday, October 20, 2013

If you can't beat 'em...

Well, it looks like Jesus mythicism just won't go away. The trick that they mythicists like to play is to pick and choose a few pieces of evidence, with no discernible critical method (in Atwill's case, he takes Josephus at face value, but assumes the gospels are complete fabrications), and then to build a narrative that can explain those pieces of evidence, while ignoring any evidence that don't fit this narrative. Especially if that evidence comes from the New Testament.

The key is that your narrative doesn't have to explain all the evidence, or explain the evidence better than than the prevailing consensus. It just has make a good story. So I figured if that's all it takes, maybe somebody should take a crack at it who has a little better command of the primary sources and historical context than most of the mythicists.

So here, spun off my successful Quest for the Historical James, is my entirely made up, not-at-all serious Jesus myth. Failure to take with sufficient salt may lead to lightheadedness. If you experience a conspiracy theory lasting more than four hours, seek immediate medical attention.

Sometime around the first decades of the Common Era, there was a young Galilean by the name of Yaaqov bar Yosef, but we'll just call him Jimmy. Jimmy's father, Joe, was a craftsman of some sort from a small town called Nazareth. Jimmy had several brothers, including Sy, Joey, Jude, and the twins, Tommy and Josh. Josh (his full name was Yeshua bar Yosef) was a bit of a schmuck, especially for somebody pushing 30. One Passover, Josh was on Spring Break in Jerusalem, got a little too drunk at the seder, and wound up beating the spit out of some money-changers in the Temple. When the Roman guards came to break it up, Josh made an obscene joke about Caesar rendering something unto himself, called himself "the Lizard King," and got himself crucified.

Now Jimmy had been sent to Jerusalem to keep his elder brother out of trouble, and now he had to go back to Nazareth and explain to his family that Josh had died a humiliating and accursed death. He knew it would break his poor mother's heart.

So he started making things up.

Josh hadn't been home in quite some time, so Jimmy, who was a pretty good Torah student, made up the story (based in part on prophetic traditions) that Josh had been an itinerant teacher and healer this whole time, instead of wandering around crashing wedding parties and hanging out with tax collectors. Jimmy wove his own apocalyptic beliefs into the stories, spreading the idea of a coming Kingdom of God where the poor and powerless would be exalted over the rich and powerful. He got Josh's old pal Rocky in on it, and even claimed Josh was baptized by the notorious Johnny Dunker. As these rumors started to spread, some of the stories got conflated with the deeds of other miracle-workers and messianic claimants who were running around at the time, and the fame of this Josh who was crucified for claiming to be king only grew.

Jimmy wasn't exactly comfortable with some of what was going on. A few of Josh's old crew had been so drunk when Josh's twin Tommy showd up at the wake, they said they'd seen Josh after he died. Some people were claiming Josh was the Messiah, or some kind of Greek demigod! But Jimmy saw it as a chance to engage in social and religious reform, so he played along. Even when that thug Solly "Tiny" Tarsus switched teams and started recruiting gentiles to the movement, Jimmy put up with it, so long as Solly kept it out of Jerusalem. But Solly's followers quickly started to outnumber Jimmy's, and the Jewish authorities started getting nervous. They asked Jimmy to put the kibosh on the whole business, but he was int too deep to turn back, so the temple authorities took advantage of a gap in the Roman administration to form a lynch mob and stone poor Jimmy to death.

There you go! I'd go so far as to say this version does a better job of explaining the evidence than most mythicist theories, since it accounts for Paul's references to James as Jesus' brother, as well as James' prominence over Jesus in Josephus. It doesn't mythologize Jesus, per se, but will satisfy those who want the Gospel accounts to be entirely fictional, without having to irrationally suppose that Jews would have made up the crucifixion of a supposed messiah.

The only problem is, it's complete bullshit. Because it introduces far too much unnecessary complexity, and assumes far too much not in evidence. Most of all, it rests on the assumption that some of our sources were complete liars. Not just biased. Not just embellishing received tradition along doctrinal lines. But complete and total liars. And once you start assuming that, it gets hard to do history, at least from literary and documentary sources.

Don't get me wrong, ancient sources lie. Or make things up, at least. The whole concept of objective history is a very modern one, and we know full well, for instance, that Josephus fudged a lot of the facts to suit his agenda, just as Thucydides made up elaborate speeches to fit his philosophical understanding of history, and Suetonius would report any rumor with an orgy or a poisoning in it. And we know the Gospel sources made up plenty of stuff, like the nativity narratives (they can't both be true), and they massaged the sayings they had received to convey specific messages. But we can't throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, we have to learn to read critically, and sift out the baby-shaped bits.

It's possible that the entire ministry of Jesus was a big con-job, whether you think it was made up by Paul, the Romans, or James. But it isn't likely, when compared to the much simpler, entirely plausible idea that there was a Galilean apocalyptic teacher who preached about a coming Kingdom of God, who was credited with healings and miracles (by a populace who believed such things were possible), who developed a bit of a following, who ran afoul of the authorities in Jerusalem and was crucified, and whose followers later came to believe he had risen from the dead in demonstration of his divine power.

There is a difference between skepticism and bad faith. We should be critical of our sources, but if we assume everything is a fiction until proven otherwise, we won't get very far.

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All comments are moderated by imperial fiat. You have the right to say what you want, but I don't have to give you a forum. Don't be a schmuck: that is the whole of the Torah. The rest is just commentary.